Of Milk and Microbes

Carlito Lebrilla

Carlito Lebrilla’s pioneering work on how complex sugars affect health has led to collaborations across campus in everything from infant nutrition to cancer detection. His discoveries also played a central role in Evolve Biosystems, a startup company making probiotics to encourage a healthy environment in the infant gut and prevent digestive disorders.

In recognition of his quarter-century of trailblazing work on how complex sugars affect health and nutrition, Lebrilla was chosen as the 2018 recipient of the UC Davis Academic Senate’s Distinguished Research Award.

Complex sugars, also known as oligosaccharides, or glycans, are organic molecules made up of chains of saccharides, the ring structures that form sugars. Glycans coat all body cells and play an important role in cell signaling and activity.

When Lebrilla, distinguished professor of chemistry, began investigating glycans more than 20 years ago, he was among only a handful of researchers trying to figure them out. “Back then, people didn’t realize how important they are,” Lebrilla said. “Since then, we’ve found that they are important in cancer, in immune diseases, and in food.”

Lebrilla’s lab developed tools to measure oligosaccharides in human fluids, including milk, blood, saliva, feces, and urine — revealing glycans’ role in many critical biological processes. His new analytical methods showed glycan sugars were nourishing one particular microbe, Bifidobacterium infantis, in infant digestive systems. This research, done in collaboration with Professor David Mills, microbiologist in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, led to Evolve Biosystems, which now has 50 employees.

Lebrilla continues to explore new research paths in glycans, and is collaborating with oncologists and researchers at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center to provide more specific detection of cancer. When cells become cancerous, their glycan coatings change and shed unique markers into blood. “Since the glycan approach doesn’t vary greatly among the cancers, our ultimate goal is to find a single diagnostic tool that could test for many types of tumors,” Lebrilla said.

— Adapted by Becky Oskin, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science, from a story by Andy Fell, UC Davis Strategic Communications